Sigourney Weaver: ‘I’m asked to play awful people all the time’

Sigourney Weaver: ‘I’m a weird duck... I was always too tall to be the girlfriend.’

Sigourney Weaver has four films coming out between now and 2022 – three Avatars and an Alien sequel – most of which have yet to be filmed, and which the 67-year-old has prepared for by cramming in as many small films as she can in advance. This is a psychological as well as an acting necessity, a way for Weaver to fine-tune before the onslaught – and which, in the case of A Monster Calls, has resulted in an almost unbearably poignant movie. The film, adapted from the Patrick Ness novel about a child who loses his mother, is so finely wrought that when Weaver first read the script, she thought, “I don’t think I can be part of this, it’s too painful. And then you realise this is your job, to tell the story.

Weaver is bright today, in a studio just outside New York, with that friendly but slightly patrician air she puts to good use in the roles she does best: the ostensible villain who isn’t all that she seems. For someone as open as Weaver, she plays repressed very well, most notably Janey in Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm, but going back as far as Katharine in Working Girl, and even to Ripley in Alien, the film that established her as an actor able to convey large internal movement via the smallest surface ripple. These roles are often characterised as “cold”, which feels to Weaver like a gendered term designed to debase their humanity. “The male perspective may be that it’s a cold person. But in fact, like in Ice Storm, Janey was disconnected: she couldn’t focus on the present and her family. Bored and lost. But I would never have gone to ‘cold’.

If she is optimistic about human nature, it is not only a requirement of her job – to inhabit another psychology requires deep levels of empathy – but of what appears to be her generous disposition. A small example: I am 30 minutes late after a train debacle, something that, with an actor of Weaver’s standing, would customarily cause upset on a par with the sky falling in, but is instead met with concern. Standing up from the lunch table to her full 6ft, and in a tweed jacket that speaks to an idea she has of England, she projects an amused frankness that she later describes, with some embarrassment that it should need to be clarified, as “normal”. One can be the sort of actor who shouts and screams and throws tantrums, but “honestly,” Weaver says, “life is too short”.

In the new movie, directed by JA Bayona and co-starring Felicity Jones and Liam Neeson, Weaver plays a woman whose adult daughter is dying of cancer; an unsympathetic figure, at least as she is seen through the eyes of her grandson. It is a fairytale of sorts, what Weaver calls “a unique blend of allegory and harsh, harsh reality”, and one that, in the context of her career in sci-fi and dystopian drama, is in some ways the most frightening landscape of all. A Monster Calls covers the triptych of worst nightmares: of a child losing a parent; of dying oneself and orphaning one’s children; and, the worst of all, suffered by Weaver’s character (and the thing that makes her tight-lipped demeanour so interesting), that of losing one’s child. “It’s not that she’s cold – it’s that she’s not sharing, because she can’t,” she says.

The film is set in England, and for reference Weaver drew on her own mother, born and raised in Essex, a graduate of Rada and the West End stage before she emigrated to New York and met Weaver’s television producer father. “She had the most beautiful speaking voice,” she says. “When I began shooting, I sometimes sounded like her. I really was uncomfortable. And I really needed to find the grandmother’s accent. It’s not a Manchester accent, but we didn’t want to be posh.” (The class setting is one of the few aspects of the film that doesn’t quite add up, though the film’s dream-like texture largely forgives it.)

Full interview: theguardian.com